A recent development in the treatment of trauma means that people who have suffered for years from distressing memories, nightmares, abuse or other traumatic events can often gain relief effectively and quickly.
EMDR is a valuable addition to traditional talk therapy and more and more clinical studies show it helps people with a wide range of emotional struggles, not just with PTSD. Research shows that it is fast, safe and effective and does not involve the use of drugs, or hypnosis. When used as an adjunct to traditional therapy, EMDR processing can often be helpful in changing the meaning of early, painful memories, which have resulted in negative core beliefs and early “maladaptive beliefs”; which when recalled trigger negative emotions, sensations, and thoughts. These can be referred to as “unfinished business.” Unfortunately ignoring them doesn’t heal them.
It is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, an innovative clinical treatment that has successfully helped over a million individuals who have survived trauma. Trauma is defined as “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury.” Trauma can be obvious, such as neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, a near death experience, or even being a witness to certain experiences can be traumatic. There are also experiences that may not be as obvious but still have lasting effects; such as relational trauma: feeling out of place, misunderstood, and difficulty connecting to others.
This processing technique can bring quick and lasting relief for many types of emotional distress; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and body image issues to name a few. EMDR uses a natural function of the body, Rapid Eye Movement (REM), as its basis. The human mind uses REM during sleep time to help it process daily emotional experiences.
When discussing how EMDR works I need to explain how the brain works, in a very basic way. The two sides of the brain have different jobs. The right brain is in charge of our emotions, creativity, and intuition. The left brain is responsible for logic, information processing, language, and analytical thinking. It is not uncommon for a person to be stronger on one side than the other. “Normal”, “healthy” brain functioning consists of bi-lateral transmission. That means there is a good balance of both sides operating with each other back and forth to help make sense of day to day emotions and experiences. For example: I failed a math test in college once, after seeing the grade my right brain was activated and I felt shame, anger, and disappointment; in this moment I was not thinking (left brain), I was feeling (right brain). However, as the day went on my left brain kicked in and I started realizing: I didn’t study very hard, the professor warned us he was a hard tester, and half the class failed. I was able to make sense of that experience and move on knowing I will do better next time. It did not haunt me and I moved on.
When we have strong emotional experiences that over stimulate the right brain sometimes our left brain remains under activated, or paralyzed, and we don’t make sense of what happened. It stays stuck in our brain, and we form negative ways of thinking; about ourselves and the world. For example that might have left me thinking “I am a failure”, “I am stupid”, or “I will never succeed.”
In EMDR therapy bi-lateral stimulation is used (that means the client focuses on an event while they are following a light, a tap, or a tone that goes back and forth and activates, or turns on, both the right and left side of the brain). This brings balance to the two sides of the brain and helps unlock negative thinking and tap into brains natural ability to heal itself and “re-process” the event. People usually experience rapid shifts in thinking that help them resolve their trauma in a way they never have before. What I find so fascinating and empowering about EMDR is it’s the clients own brain and thinking that brings about the healing; the taps, tones, or light are simply there to balance out the two sides of the brain. The very thoughts, feelings, and memories that many ran from through drugs, self-harm, acting out, and dissociation, become not only manageable but shift to positive feelings. EMDR makes it possible to gain the self-knowledge and perspective that will enable the client to choose their actions, rather than feeling powerless over their reactions. Although it may sound like it EMDR is not hypnosis, nor is the client alone in the process. The therapist is there step by step guiding the process and supporting the client.
Only therapists holding a Masters degree or higher who have been trained by an EMDRIA approved trainer can perform EMDR. While EMDR has proven very helpful for many people not everyone responds to it. Just like some people respond to weight lifting and others respond to yoga. An assessment process is done to see if EMDR is a good fit for you.
Are there published studies that show that EMDR is effective?
Yes, fourteen controlled studies, and growing, support its efficacy in treatment of trauma. For details on these studies please see me personally.